Massive Attack re-release their classic Mezzanine album and embarking on a grand tour for 2019 and Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody looks back on its history and forward to its future.
Mezzanine is infamous as the album that nearly tore the band apart during it’s gestation, yet as it happened it became Massive Attack’s most commercially successful long player.
First released in 1998, the band are now celebrating it’s 21’st anniversary with a re-mastered re-issue and an extensive tour, which will also see Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser join them on stage. She contributed the vocals to three tracks on the album and it’s the first time she will have been seen in a live setting since 2012.
There’s lots to like about this news.
Listening to the album afresh for the purposes of this piece, it’s easy to see (hear) why it was on heavy rotation back in the day. It was an entirely apt metaphor for the coming end of the 20th century; dark, brooding and edgy most of the time. But beautiful (Teardrop) at times as well.
The songs sound as at ease here in 2019 as they did in 1998. There’s a timeless quality to much of the work that gives comfort, like a well made Chicken Biriyani, even if it does unsettle at the same time. It’s as though there’s the odd rogue hot chili hidden in there for good measure.
There is also the fact this is not just a re-issue of an album we already own, albeit re-mastered. Most of the tracks on Mezzanine were re-mixed by The Mad Professor, but this work (save for a couple of tracks issued as single B-sides) has not been released until now.
That makes this a worthwhile exercise, for there is new and decent material to be had – not just a few studio demos and out-takes tacked on to make this one for completists alone.
The re-issue was teased last year with a curious press release. It was reported the band had encoded the album into DNA which would be made available to purchase as a matte black spray paint can. It was said in the press release: “This digital bitstream of the album (0s and 1s) was first translated to 901’065 DNA sequences (A, C, T and Gs), each 105 characters long. The 901’065 individual sequences were then chemically synthesised resulting in a synthetic DNA sample, which fully represents the digital bitstream of the album.”
Clear enough? Not really. That’s probably the point.
Maybe more interesting was the description in the press release of Robert “3D” Del Naja as a “graffiti artist”. Adding fuel to the fire of the well known rumour that Del Naja is indeed Banksy. That rumour was probably started by Goldie in an interview earlier in the year, anyway, when he accidentally referred to Banksy as “Robert” and has since taken no steps whatsoever to correct or explain the slip.
It seems entirely appropriate for the re-issue to have been heralded as though it is a work of art, as opposed to just another record, as Mezzanine has always felt like an album that strays into the artistic spectrum as being more than just a collection of songs. It may be the in depth ‘music as art’ discussion is one best left for another day, for after all it can always be argued all music is art. But there is a case for saying some albums are more art than others. Mezzanine definitely falls into this category.
Reports suggest Del Naja wanted to use samples from some of the punk and post punk bands he listened to growing up – Gang of Four and Wire would allegedly appear. This would have given the album an even edgier feel the finished version doesn’t have – he was apparently outvoted.
But, even then, if it was not the album he initially wanted, he nevertheless delayed the release of the original by 4 months while he spent time in the studio “making tracks, tearing them apart, fucking them up, panicking and starting again”. The album even had a working title of Damaged Goods – a reference to Gang of Four’s debut single.
This influence is apparent on opening track Angel, which starts with a brooding dub groove before waves of metallic guitar crash in, taking their cue from Theme, the first track on Public Image Ltd‘s debut album.
Superpredators used samples taken from Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Metal Postcard, but never made it to the album. It does however see the light of day on the re-issue in the form of a Mad Professor mix called Metal Banshee.
It was this change in direction that prompted founding member Mushroom to leave the group, unhappy with Massive Attack‘s shift away from their soul/hip hop roots, going so far as to famously ask Del Naja “Are we a fucking punk band now?” Del Naja for his part claimed he had simply “grown out” of hip hop.
Massive Attack were being pulled in two directions, and it is easy to think that this tension and air of paranoia had seeped into the music they were making.
Whether or not the finished product was what Del Naja either wanted or envisaged at the start, there is no doubt that Mezzanine is a classic and it regularly features on all time top 100 lists. Interestingly, on release it hit the number one mark in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. But the Americans didn’t get it and the highest it managed in the US Billboard charts was number 60. It fared better elsewhere in Europe, but it clearly wasn’t travelling the Atlantic that well. Even the Canadians only bought enough copies to get it to 51 in the Canadian charts.
The re-issue may perhaps be a bit more faithful to Del Naja’s original intention. Along with the Siouxsie inspired Metal Banshee, there’s also a Mad Professor re-mix called Wire. And with the original release including the track Group Four, it’s clear where the references are leading – back to Del Naja’s post punk leanings, even if he didn’t get to use the samples first time around.
Also undeniable is the richness and texture Elizabeth Fraser brought to the tracks on which she did the vocals. Her contribution to Teardrop is a stand out, haunting, beautiful masterpiece. It will be little short of spectacular to see and hear her doing it in a live setting. It is said that Mushroom covertly approached Madonna to provide vocals, going against the group’s consensus to use Liz Fraser, which escalated tensions within the group. Nothing against Madonna, but it would seem the decision to use Fraser was indeed the right one.
The other major contributor to the original was reggae legend Horace Andy, who did the vocals on Angel, Man Next Door and (Exchange). It is yet to be seen whether he will appear on the tour.
The vinyl version of the re-issue is not cheap at £87, but it does look to be a thing of beauty, being 3 coloured vinyl LPs and a pair of hard back books, one featuring imagery documenting the development of the final album cover image. The second book is a reproduction of a book – Fitting In – which Del Naja released in 2000, but only in an issue of 50 copies.
For the rest of us there is a double CD issue at a much more reasonable £14.
Both versions are available to buy as from April 19.
The tour kicks off at Glasgow SSE Hydro on January 28 and hits Manchester Arena on January 29. That’s followed by dates in Europe before the band play a brace of special homecoming gigs in Bristol on March 1 and 2.